Zimba the jaguar should not have been there. The biologist recognized it as the same jaguar she had ordered to be confiscated a year earlier during her first inspection in 2015. It had the same spot in the shape of a butterfly on its face.
The zoo at Little French Key (LFK) on the island of Roatán, Honduras’ Caribbean coast, did not have the permits to own certain exotic animals and did not meet basic requirements to keep exotic animals. There is no way Zimba should still have been there.
Speaking to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity due to fears for her safety, the biologist said that the LFK zoo was raided in 2015, 2016 and 2018 for the same reasons. Yet nothing changed.
This was just another item on a long list of suspicions that Honduras' Forest Conservation Institute of Honduras (Instituto de Conservación Forestal de Honduras - ICF) had about the zoo since it started operating in 2011 and which remained constant year after year, raid after raid.
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Big cats such as tigers, lions and jaguars were kept in cages that were far too small. Enclosures had no elements to help entertain or reduce stress among the animals, such as vegetation or toys. The zoo had no permits to own certain animals, such as the felines or macaw parrots. Some animals, such as certain protected species of monkeys, had likely been illegally trafficked from the jungles of La Mosquitia. The zoo had been prohibited from acquiring new animals and had continued to do so.
And shockingly, part of its infrastructure is mounted directly upon Roatán’s coral reef, one of the most vibrant on the planet, also without the corresponding permits.
But the biologists had not only filed reports. Zimba the jaguar was not the only animal ordered to be removed from the LFK zoo. ICF staff seized the cats, pumas, sloths, sparrowhawks, exotic birds and many more.
One challenge was to find alternative facilities to house them. For example, Zimba was offered to another zoo on the far east of Roatán island, at the small key of Barbereta but the owner refused due to a lack of space. The jaguar was therefore moved to a zoo on Honduras' mainland at Joya Grande, an area heavily associated with drug trafficking.
So how did the jaguar, butterfly spot and all, end up back in LFK a year later when the zoo had not made any progress in complying with animal care regulations?
The Joya Grande zoo was founded just over 10 years ago by Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, one of the leaders of Los Cachiros, a group that dominated cocaine trafficking in northern Honduras until 2013, when it was dismantled by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After Rivera Maradiaga's capture, the Honduran state seized the Joya Grande zoo, which was run by experts who had worked there since the era of Los Cachiros.
According to testimony by ICF members and reports reviewed by InSight Crime, Joya Grande regularly received animals that had been illegally kept at other zoos such as Little French Key. Zimba was among them.
And many of these animals were just sent right back to LFK. After discovering Zimba was in LFK during the 2016 inspection, the biologist documented her findings, compared the results of the two seizures, produced a report and sent it to the Attorney General's Office in Tegucigalpa. Nothing happened.
"Reports have been filed since 2011. They were given time to legalize the ownership of these animals and they never did it. But the whole time, (LFK) filled up with jaguars," she told InSight Crime.
And the relationship between Joya Grande and LFK was nothing new. Four of the first pumas ever kept at LFK had been sold without meeting all the legal conditions by the staff at Joya Grande for $4,000 an animal. Upon first arrival on Roatán, they were even temporarily kept at the Barbereta zoo, the one that had no place for Zimba.
"There is a broad influence ring going on here. There are no permits for all this. There is nothing," she told InSight Crime.
But the story of LFK is not just about a zoo founded by drug traffickers. It is a story that cuts to the heart of wildlife trafficking in Honduras. It is a story that reveals animal abuse in a spot that is sold as an exotic destination where tourists can swim in the waters of the Caribbean.
Lawlessness in Little French Key
Little French Key is a small key located some 20 minutes by speedboat from Puerto Francés, in the central part of Roatán. History books say that French buccaneers fought the British and Spanish empires for control of the island during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the tourist industry has used this pirate connection to draw in tourists.
The LFK zoo is only reachable by motorboat, taken from a small wooden pier, flanked by two wooden pirates and a bar near Puerto Francés, a section of Roatán.
The place is surreal. It is halfway between a luxurious, picture-perfect Caribbean tourist resort, with crystalline waters, bungalows and water slides, and a bizarre zoo full of animals that should never have been there.
The zoo is owned by Kaveh Lahijani, an Iranian citizen with Honduran residency, who faced serious civil suits in the United States and charges in Honduras.
Lahijani arrived in Honduras when he was being sued for $2.5 million from creditors related to real estate deals in Orange County, California.
According to court documents, Lahijani declared himself bankrupt in 1998 in order to evade creditors. This process lasted until 2009, when, after multiple appeals, Lahijani agreed to pay part of his debts. In order to do so, a relative of his wife, Larissa Krupp Lahijani, loaned him the $2.5 million.
According to the woman's testimony, Lahijani used part of the money to open and supply the Little French Key zoo.
In March 2011, Lahijani “left California and went to Honduras to start a new life, and used $2 million of the loans that had secured in Santa Ana, to build the place known as Little French Key, that in 2016 was the number 1 tourist attraction in Honduras, receiving between 200 and 300 visitors daily, the majority from cruise ships and generating a profit of around $200,000 per month,” said Larissa Krupp in testimony she gave to the court.
In Roatán, Kaveh Lahijani became a local celebrity because of his exotic animals and his ability to evade justice. But even today, those that speak of him do so discreetly, out of fear.
During the first inspection of LFK by Honduran authorities in 2015, over 100 animals were kept there. ICF agents estimated it would cost around $28,000 per month to feed them. If the profits estimated in Larissa Krupp's testimony are correct, Lahijani's zoo was a major earner.
Additionally, from the very start, Lahijani tried to keep costs down. This included building amenities rapidly and without compliance to environmental regulations, such as building a swimming pool adorned with concrete horses, beyond the line of the pristine Roatán coral reef, as well as cutting down mangroves to do so. Based on three court cases against him filed between 2016 and 2017, he never repaired the damage this caused. And between 2017 and 2018, LFK workers also filed criminal cases against him for non-payment of wages.
In 2016, Larissa Krupp filed a lawsuit in Honduras and in the United States against her husband for intrafamily violence and filed for divorce in a California court, with a request for monthly compensation of $45,911.
InSight Crime tried to contact Lahijani’s lawyers but received no response.
Kaveh Lahijani was able to hide from his legal troubles at his LFK zoo, where the trafficked animals guaranteed him a significant source of revenue. But his luck would only last a few years.
On the morning of Sunday, August 26, 2018, the mangrove and the bunkers surrounding the zoo were ablaze. LFK staff called the police and firefighters.
By the afternoon, the fire was still not completely under control and had ravaged around one-third of the resort. A team of ICF biologists in Roatán arrived to take inventory of the animals. According to accounts collected from the experts by InSight Crime, the situation was pure chaos.
Much like the previous visits in 2015 and 2016, the zoo had no permits for most of the animals, and the ICF team began procedures to confiscate them. But according to later reports, zoo employees, including two veterinarians from Mexico and Spain, tried to stop them.
One of the biologists stated that the large cats were to be brought to an authorized shelter, but Kaveh Lahijani’s employees tried to stop her. “They pushed her, they pulled her hair, they called her a thief,” recalled one of the state agents that was at LFK on the day of the fire.
Lahijani did not even go to the zoo until someone told him that the police were taking away his jaguars.
However, after the first few hours of confusion, the LFK zoo suddenly saw a new type of visitor. Around 90 government personnel, including ICF staff and army special forces arrived, as well as two helicopters. The biologists stayed one week to make a full inventory. And Little French Key closed.
By May 2019, LFK was up and running again. On the day InSight Crime visited the zoo, there was no sign of Zimba the jaguar. But three other big cats were sprawled in two cages. There was a baby monkey and several exotic birds, which the ICF suspected had been trafficked from La Mosquitia, as well as peacocks and horses. On the edge of the coral reef, in the pool with the concrete horses, a team of laborers continued construction work.
But Lahijani's luck was about to run out. Even before the fire, he had been well-known to local authorities, due to the lawsuits he faced at courts in Roatán. But the story of the Iranian man and his zoo of trafficked animals had also reached the Attorney General's Office in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and the United States embassy, according to a chief prosecutor who spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity due to not being authorized to comment on open cases.
“Things accelerated when the United States said there was interest, not just because of the owner’s past, but because there were suspicions of money laundering and animal trafficking,” said the chief prosecutor.
On May 15, 2019, the Honduran police surrounded Lahijani's house in Puerto Francés on Roatán and arrested him for money laundering and confiscated some $130,000 in cash. Due to a lack of evidence, Lahijani was released and he traveled to Panama. But his legal trouble in the United States was not over.
In September 2019, Lahijani was returned to California after a judge had demanded his arrest on fraud allegations. When renewing his US passport at the consulate in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 2017, he had been asked whether he had any pending court cases in the United States. He lied and did not mention that his ex-wife, Larisa Krupp, was suing him for $1.5 million in family assistance.
In January 2020, the California District Attorney's Office asked for the case regarding the passport application to be dismissed, but the cases relating to his debts have not been resolved. In a letter to the judge overseeing the case, Larissa Krupp stated that part of the money she alleges Lavijani owes her was used to maintain the zoo on Little French Key, where he allegedly trafficked animals, damaged a pristine coral reef and is suspected of laundering money.
Upon referring to Kaveh Lahijani during a bail bond hearing in California in October 2019, a a judge said, “There is nothing about this gentleman that indicates to me that he has any respect for law.” This statement aptly describes the illegality that took place in LFK for over a decade.
And while the LFK zoo was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, a Honduran official in Roatán confirmed a startling yet unsurprising fact: the animals are still there.
*Photos: Héctor Silva Ávalos